George Stephens: Losing sight of the mission

I’ve spent the past several days contemplating the juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate events. The first is Dr. Benjamin Ladner, president of American University, creating a public relations storm (or worse) by wrong-headedly assuming a sense of privilege and entitlement misfitted to his professional role. The summary of his seemingly over-the-top expenses has been reported widely in such sources as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Closer to home, I noted with interest that Student Judicial Services is banning, among other items, pocket knives from the GW residence halls (GW Mail Services advertisement, Sept. 22, p. 14).

As a field geologist, I’ve carried a pocket knife for my entire professional career. My current knife has accompanied me to Antarctica, Alaska, the Argentinean Andes, the island of Spitsbergen and a variety of research locales in the western Rockies. I have used it to collect firewood, to open cans as well as wine and beer bottles, to prepare meals, to seal sample bags with the ubiquitous supply of duct tape, to remove splinters and make bandages, to open letters and helicopter fuel drums, and much more.

My initial puzzlement centered on why such a useful tool might be banned from campus. Perhaps there has been a rash of pocket knife-related incidents that have escaped my attention? That is, perhaps these pocket knives are viewed as weapons rather than tools. If so, what about scissors, kitchen knives (which presumably are still allowed), razor blades, nail clippers and baseball bats? In the end, I decided that this is just an unfortunate example of a University office attempting to mandate a risk-free environment for our students.

I fear that what is being lost at AU and GW, and probably many other colleges and universities around the country, is the core mission of the university. Universities were conceived as communities of scholars. Both President Ladner and SJS seem to have lost sight of this.

In an ideal university, scholars learn from and teach each other. When I was an undergraduate geology major at GW (back in the mid-Mesozoic Era of the 1960s), I was fortunate to study in a department chaired by a professor, Dr. Geza Teleki, who believed that our department was a shared endeavor with everyone engaged in a common scholarly enterprise.

To be sure, some of the scholars – the faculty – were more senior than others – the students – but we each had something valuable to contribute to the functioning and growth of our program and our science. Faculty research and travel almost invariably included student participation.

A very high proportion of our relatively modest departmental budget was allocated directly to the advancement of student-initiated activities. This provided a seriousness of purpose and a sense of direction to our undergraduates unmatched by most other programs at the time. The department faculty insisted that we, as students, treat our role as scholars and citizens of a wider scientific community with the utmost seriousness. Professor Teleki would shake his head in astonished disbelief at the university notion that GW undergraduates lack the emotional and scholarly maturity to posses a simple tool like a pocket knife and that President Ladner could somehow mistake his own overblown sense of self-importance for effective leadership of a serious scholarly enterprise.

-The writer is a professor of geography and geoscience.

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